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North Queensland Naturalist 46 (2016): 16-46

Charles Weldon (de Burgh) Birch (Count Zelling), an unassuming botanical and zoological collector in central and north-eastern Queensland

John Leslie Dowe




Charles Weldon (de Burgh) Birch (Count Zelling) (1821-94) was an amateur botanical and zoological collector active in central and north-eastern Queensland 1852-93. He was the embodiment of the wandering naturalist, but as with most amateur collectors he remained on the fringe of ‘official’ science. Birch’s first documented zoological collections were land and freshwater shells collected in 1857 at the Namoi River. He went on to collect freshwater invertebrates, fishes, insects, gastropods and later reptiles, a total of at least 60 specimens which were mainly sent to the Australian Museum and later the Queensland Museum. His first documented botanical collection, a Nymphaea sp. from Thomson River, was made in 1870, and was collected with the encouragement of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, Victorian Government Botanist, and the most eminent Australian botanist of the nineteenth century. About 760 botanical specimens collected by Birch are extant, most of which are in the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. A significant early influence on Birch’s later activities was Samuel Stutchbury, New South Wales Government Geological Surveyor to whom Birch acted as assistant 1852-55 and for whom he anonymously collected palaeontological, mineralogical and zoological specimens as part of his field-work duties. In 1870, Birch became involved in the search for the lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and was commissioned by the Ladies’ Search Committee to undertake an expedition to investigate a possible survivor of Leichhardt’s missing party living in the Thomson/Diamantina Rivers area. The search revealed no positive evidence of Leichhardt or his party. Birch took on additional names which he related to his ancestry, ‘de Burgh’ in 1871 and ‘Count Zelling’ in 1874, and which he used in official documents, written works and specimen labels. Based on specimens that he collected, Birch is commemorated in four plant and animal taxa including the Galvanised Burr, Sclerolaena birchii (F.Muell.) Domin; the Gidgee Skink, Egernia stokesii zellingi De Vis, 1884; the Proserpine Dual-banded Snail, Bentosites birchi Iredale, 1933 [Sphaerospira gavisa Iredale, 1933]; and a clam-shrimp Limnadopsis birchii Baird, 1860. Including the above eponymous taxa, Birch collected the type specimens of bryophytes (2 taxa), lichens (2), angiosperms (14), gastropods (1), branchiopod crustaceans (1), insects (1) and reptiles (5).

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